History Files


Prehistoric World

In the Beginning was the Vowel

Edited from BBC News, 8 August 2001

Research released in 2001 showed that humans were able to talk 300,000 years ago.

Late Homo heidelbergensis specimens which lived in northern Spain could utter basic vowel sounds, according to researchers who worked at the Atapuerca archaeological site in Burgos Province. Heidelbergensis had a voice box which was at an evolutionary stage between chimpanzees and modern humans.

It was the first time that fossil evidence for this had been discovered. The findings are based on studies of a complete skull found in the Sima de los Huesos (Pit of Bones) in Atapuerca in 1992 among the remains of over thirty other people. They were announced at a news conference by the co-director of the Atapuerca excavations, Juan Luis Arsuaga, and fellow palaeontologist Ignacio Martinez.

'For the first time,' they stated, 'we can say that an anatomically intermediate situation between chimpanzee and human existed on the planet - not only anatomical but also functional. That means that humans could talk 300,000 years ago, albeit not in the way we do.'

The now famous skull, Atapuerca 5 was identified as belonging to the species Homo heidelbergensis, which scientists usually accept as the last common ancestor of the Neanderthals and today's humans.


Homo heidelbergensis could pronounce some basic vowel sounds - 'aa', 'ee', and 'oo' - but not well enough to hold any kind of conversation. The sounds would have been slow and slurred due to the dimensions of the mouth and pharynx, according to the Spanish researchers.

For Arsuaga, the evidence of a semi-developed voice box reinforced the idea that 'the evolution of human intelligence also occurred in a progressive manner,' and not spontaneously, as many scientists had hitherto maintained.

Homo heidelbergensis
Since this article was written, the date for human speech has been pushed back to 530,000 years (in 2008) by the same researchers, its existence confirmed by the presence of the hyoid bone in the throat



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